By Matt Lynch
Student, Master’s in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Emergency and Disaster Management
Most organizations plan for emergencies. For example, to deal with potential flooding, a company might relocate its backup generators from the basement to the roof, install water alarms, store critical files and data in an off-site, less flood-prone location, and of course practice evacuation drills.
A disaster is an emergency on steroids, and a crisis is even more devastating than an emergency or a disaster. As such, it requires additional planning and foresight.
According to Ian Mitroff, an authority on crisis management and author of “Why Some Companies Emerge Stronger and Better from a Crisis: 7 Essential Lessons for Surviving a Disaster,” a crisis for an organization is “an extreme event that literally threatens its very existence.” Often, a crisis starts with an emergency or a disaster that is handled improperly. A crisis action plan (CAP) is designed to protect an organization from a debilitating crisis.
Developing a Crisis Action Plan
A CAP is both a document and a strategy that outlines how an organization will respond to any number of crises and potential organization-ending events. First, a CAP determines the organization’s critical functions. Like a human heart, a critical function is an action that must continue for the organization to exist.
Critical functions help differentiate between a disaster and a crisis. A disaster can temporarily halt, interrupt or displace a critical function, while a crisis causes a critical function to cease. For example, a building fire would be a disaster if it destroyed 100% of an organization’s product inventory. That same fire would be a crisis if it destroyed the only machine capable of creating that inventory.
The next step in developing a CAP is to predict the most likely crisis-causing disasters the organization may face. Because a list of potential disasters could be endless, the document should divide crises into general threat categories. American Military University’s graduate class, EDMG560: Crisis Action Planning, cites three general threat categories: natural and manmade disasters, product and processes disasters, and fictitious disasters. Special business or environmental circumstances may call for additional categories.
Once the list of categories has been agreed upon, organizations are encouraged to determine the one or two most likely disasters in each category. Next, the organization determines the process necessary to prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from each threat. Because threats in the same category have commonalities, the process becomes a guide to handling any threat in that category.
For example, an organization might determine that a hazardous material spill is the most likely threat in the natural and manmade disaster category. As a result, the CAP would include an evacuation plan for the building. In the event of a fire, flood or other natural hazard, the same evacuation plan can be used. Grouping threats by category reduces redundancy and improves efficiency.
Establishing a Crisis Management Team Framework
The final step in developing a CAP is also the most important – the creation of the crisis management team framework. Because every crisis is different, a written plan cannot address all aspects of an incident. A crisis management team is necessary to analyze the situation, determine if a crisis truly exists and, if so, determine the necessary steps to handle the crisis. The written CAP is then the starting point and guide to aid the crisis management team in its decision-making.
According to Melissa Agnes, a TEDx talk presenter and the creator of the #CrisisReady video series, the crisis management team should be composed of senior management, affected stakeholders, and division, region, and/or unit heads within the organization. It should be led by a designated chairperson with the other members acting as advisors.
A Student/Business Partnership
As a student enrolled in AMU’s EDMG560: Crisis Action Planning class, I was tasked with developing a CAP for an organization. Students were given the option of developing the plan in isolation or working with an actual organization, a technique known as service learning.
I partnered with Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), a non-profit organization that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. This decision was based on two considerations.
First, working with an actual organization would provide me with actual work experience I could use as a reference in a job interview or resume. Second, WCC was in need of a new CAP as its existing plan was minimal and limited in scope. My efforts would potentially save WCC thousands of dollars for the development of a new expanded plan.
To get started, I met with both WCC’s Executive Director Rick Yount and Director of Facilities Kim Vaughan. I toured the campus and asked questions about how the organization operates. I inquired about critical functions and the minimum number of service dogs WCC would need to produce per year to stay viable.
The executive director shared information about the organization’s past emergencies, including a tornado that destroyed a building on the campus, and issues he felt WCC would likely face in the future. All of this helped me to determine the threat categories for the CAP.
I expanded on AMU’s original three categories to six by separating natural and man-made disasters and then adding both an economic and an animal-related disaster category.
After the meeting, I began to draft the crisis action plan. I found it hard not to fall into the trap of developing strategies for every conceivable scenario. I had to remind myself that the CAP serves not as step-by-step procedural manual, but rather as a general guide/starting point for handling a disaster that could develop into a crisis.
Once I came to terms with this fact, I made a list of critical organizational functions and what emergency procedures would be necessary to preserve those functions. For example, animal care and protection are both critical functions. As a result, WCC needed a plan for an animal evacuation.
I developed and inserted an animal evacuation plan into the crisis action plan where it would most likely be utilized, under the natural disaster category. However, the same animal evacuation plan can be used any time an evacuation is deemed necessary by the crisis management team.
My next step was to determine what would trigger the implementation of both the CAP and the crisis management team. For a slow-moving event, I determined the executive director would convene the crisis management team and together they would decide whether or not to implement the CAP.
For a fast-moving or life-threatening event, I gave the executive director authority to independently activate the CAP if he or she felt life, property, or the stability of the organization was in immediate jeopardy. The executive director was then required to convene the crisis management team as soon as reasonably possible. Once assembled, the crisis management team would help to assess and manage the crisis going forward.
In the end, I found that working with an actual organization prevented me from just going through the motions to complete the assignment. I had to consider real-life elements and variables, no matter how inconvenient or complicated they were. I needed to ensure that my suggestions were realistic, viable, and cost-effective, or WCC would ignore my proposal and be left with an outdated crisis action plan. In the end, even though the course requirement called for a 15-page paper, I submitted a 29-page document to both my professor and WCC.
The crisis action plan was well received at WCC. Executive director Yount told me he appreciated the “fresh look” at their situation, and he intends to present the CAP to the board of directors for consideration. He described the process of working with me on my college project as a “symbiotic approach to learning” and would recommend a similar partnership to other non-profit organizations and businesses.
Given that WCC is a non-profit organization I believe in, I have offered to meet with the executive staff and go over the document. If they accept the offer, together we will make any necessary changes to the CAP to account for any issues I did not foresee. This potential meeting will provide WCC with an even more detailed and customized CAP at no cost to them.
My college assignment has turned into a volunteer opportunity, and I could not be happier. My service learning project provided me with real-life experience, saving WCC thousands of dollars on the development of a new crisis action plan at the same time. Working with a non-profit or other business to complete a college assignment is a win-win scenario.